Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use and Possession (English/Spanish)

February 10, 2016

Overview

One solution to reducing the number of people swept into the criminal justice system for drug law violations is to enact various forms of decriminalization of drug use and possession. Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations (usually possession for personal use). Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens of U.S. cities and states, have taken steps toward decriminalization. By decriminalizing possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services, we can reduce the harms of drug misuse while improving public safety and health.

In practice, decriminalization means that otherwise law-abiding people are no longer arrested, let alone incarcerated, merely for possessing a drug.

Key Facts

Benefits of Decriminalization
Decriminalizing drug possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services can provide major benefits for public safety and health, including:

  • Reducing the number of people arrested
  • Reducing the number of people incarcerated
  • Increasing uptake into drug treatment
  • Reducing criminal justice costs and redirecting resources from criminal justice to health systems
  • Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime
  • Diminishing unjust racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, incarceration and related health characteristics and outcomes;
  • Minimizing the social exclusion of people who use drugs, and creating a climate in which they are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilizing harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services
  • Improving relations between law enforcement and the community
  • Protecting people from the wide-ranging and debilitating consequences of a criminal conviction

Decriminalization Does Not Affect Drug Use Rates

  • Countries that have adopted less punitive policies toward drug possession have not experienced any significant increases in drug use, drug-related harm or crime relative to more punitive countries.
  • The National Research Council stated in 2015, that there is “little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use.”

The Portuguese Decriminalization Model 

  • In 2001, Portuguese legislators enacted a comprehensive form of decriminalization of low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations. Alongside decriminalization, Portugal significantly expanded its treatment and harm reduction services, including access to sterile syringes and methadone maintenance therapy.
  • After nearly a decade and a half, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use. Yet it has seen reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced druginduced deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving treatment.
  • According to the United Nations, “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.” Independent research concludes that “there is ample evidence of a successful reform.”

Recommendations

The Drug Policy Alliance supports eliminating federal and state criminal penalties and collateral sanctions for drug use and possession violations.  

Administrative penalties – such as civil asset forfeiture, administrative detention, driver’s license suspension, excessive fines, and parental termination or child welfare interventions – run counter to the intent of a decriminalization policy and should not be imposed. 

Countries or states that pursue decriminalization using threshold limits should set maximum-quantity thresholds that reflect the realities of drug consumption in their jurisdictions. If threshold limits are set too low, the policy may have no impact, or may increase the number or length of incarcerations.

Decriminalization policies should be accompanied by an expansion of harm reduction and treatment programs, including medication-assisted treatment. Local and state governments can take a step towards decriminalization by employing pre-arrest diversionary practices and adopting 911 Good Samaritan laws.

The U.S. and the international community must open a debate about regulatory alternatives to drug prohibition in order to address the harms of illicit drug markets and other problems not alleviated by decriminalization.

See the fact sheet for more information and sources.

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